A Dutch senior tax consultant gives Richard Sergeant his impression of the UK accounting scene, including tax digitalisation and Brexit.
Given the interesting times we live in, it’s perhaps a good time to take stock and have an opportunity to see how others see us. Inspired by the premise of a recent BBC radio series, we find out if seeing the UK profession through the eyes of a Dutch counterpart sheds any light on where we are.
Giving his impression from across the channel is Netherlands-based Peter Janessen, who is a senior tax consultant at CONTOUR accountants and former chairman of BKR International EMEA region.
There are very obvious similarities, but the perception of just how outward facing and commercial UK firms are perceived to be shouldn’t be underestimated, especially from such a trading nation.
The role of technology also stands out. Although UK accountants are seen as on the front foot, the detail shows us that the future is still very much in front of us.
But it also brings into sharp relief that we are seen as both entrepreneurs and facing significant challenges over the next few years.
What is your impression of UK accountants?
My experience of dealing with UK accountants has always been positive. What I see is a profession of a very high standard and very internationally focused. British accountants do a lot of work with firms from the US, as they see the UK as the first place to come and access Europe. This is a historical and language thing, and we can see these same strong ties with Australia and India.
Content seriesView full content series
They’re also very creative around international structures, for example. The Netherlands is known for being a holding country, but a lot of structuring is done from the UK and they do a very good job. Not just on professional requirements but my impression is that generally, UK firms are also very commercial.
How do you think recent political events will impact?
They have an advantage when it comes to US investment, but this might change with Brexit. Britain could have a problem with US firms, and the structuring of their business if they are not in the EU. The Netherlands will be a good alternative from a logistic point of view, with Rotterdam, the airports, and favourable tax regulations such as the reverse charge mechanism, which only we can offer. There is also uncertainty around what will happen around VAT, but these will be sorted out eventually.
What about the use of technology?
Dutch companies invest a lot in technology and accounting firms need to do the same. Embracing technology is a requirement of our clients, and we all have to go with it. It’s been a very big development over the last five-to-10 years, and of course, provides an easier way to book invoices and easing administration. But it’s also been a big change for us; for example, we hardly have any staff doing manual work.
The UK is similar or even perhaps ahead -- that is the impression. When I was at BKR there was a lot of discussion in this area, and you could see how important it’s become.
Technology makes things quicker, more accurate and has more advantages -- not least in giving access to the same data to different people and in different formats. We see that a lot now with business, accountants and banks all looking at the same time.
Better data means the software offers more possibilities for more different types of users. You will see much more of this happening.
Are there lessons as we enter a more digital tax regime?
In the Netherlands, because of the requirements of our tax declarations, we thought digital tax would be very detailed but it didn’t come to pass.
In fact, the tax authority’s requirements were things clients were asking for anyway, and the commercial benefits soon won over - a good example of this was how clients wanted a monthly report or an overview of liquidity.
We know that tax authorities everywhere are becoming more digital, and the UK may find that it will be for the better of their clients.
What about how services have developed, especially around advisory?
Over recent years there’s been a big change in the types of services we deliver. Every client wants to have a better business, and we can offer them more consultancy because the development in the software means we have the time and tools to consult with them in the right way.
Clients are asking for more from their accountants, and we have had to focus on making an annual report more efficient to produce, and so we then have the time to offer other services.
Has the way you charged clients changed at the same time?
IT has made a shift in the way we charge: the annual report work has decreased and the other work has grown, including on the tax side. Most of the consulting work came from the tax department and now it comes from accounting.
Consulting is charged out hourly, and the annual reports are now fixed fees. The work which the client sees as efficient to produce is fixed, and the consultancy and our expertise are charged separately and clients understand this.
What do you see as the main challenges for UK accountants?
What I have heard is that problems are very similar to here, especially in terms of succession. We have seen a shift in recent times, and it’s much harder to find those who are engaged enough to work hard and crazy enough to put in a lot of money to become a partner. Younger people are looking for something different, and we understand this.
In the Netherlands, we even have some firms now which are structured like a cooperative, with no ownership stakeholders, and payments are made to everyone when things are going well. This is one way to look at the problem.
Is there anything that has struck you about the UK profession recently?
We don’t see many big mergers at the moment, and I suppose when business is good there is no need. But there are not many new accounting businesses setting up in the Netherlands either, or not very good quality ones. It’s interesting to hear that there are more new firms with good ideas setting up in the UK.
UK accountants are very creative in business and commercially, and seem to be very good at expanding.
Next time we’ll look at Australia where we may have exported our financial systems years ago, but who now arguably provides us with the closest view of how things may develop in years to come.
About Richard Sergeant
Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.